Friday, January 23, 2015

Offally Good, Part II -- Tongue

Today (well technically yesterday) we're tackling beef tongue. Unlike oxtail, I've actually had tongue before several times, but I've never actually prepared it myself. I knew in advance that it's somewhat tricky and that doing it wrong leaves you with a weird, rubbery substance that's not remotely appealing. Was I successful in avoiding this? Kinda! Read on as we prepare some delicious tongue tacos, or tacos de lengua if you're fancy. Here's the recipe I'm kind of following if you want some specifics, but this one allows more room for improvisation than the stew did.

First things first, we need to thaw and unwrap the ol' tongue. I actually happened into possession of two separate tongues. The other tongue was much more picturesque and probably would look a lot better in shitty phone pics, but that one is also vacuum wrapped all nicely, while this one was just wrapped in plastic and butcher paper. So I figured the other one would keep a lot longer. Anyway, this is what a beef tongue looks like (albeit one that's already had a bit of pre-butchering):

A tongue
 Unlike the oxtail, there is zero doubt what you're working with here. The second you touch it to wash off the excess blood and whatnot on it, you instantly know you're holding a tongue. It's…well, off-putting would be a word that comes to mind, but doesn't accurately describe it. Anyone who has a dog will already be quite familiar with the sandpaper-like texture of the tongue of most mammals, but damn  if it still isn't weird and creepy.

The tastebuds. It's most definitely a tongue.
I started to write about this in the previous post but deleted it for space, but cooking with offal really reminds you that you're cooking with something that used to be a living animal. I'm sure plenty of people have already written about the phenomenon, but the modern grocery store really divorces you from the fact that meat used to be a living thing, not just some shrink-wrapped pieces in a refrigerated display case. Handling tongue there is zero way to not be conscious of the fact that there was once a living cow using its tongue for cow stuff which was then killed and its tongue was chopped off and put into some wax paper.

Anyway, much like the oxtail, the tongue needs a nice long bath, simmering in various flavorful things to make it both tender and tasty. Here it is enjoying some soaking time:

Celery, onions, bay leaves, peppercorns, tongue
 After a few hours of simmering (I went for 3 and a half, probably could have used a bit more), it's pretty good to go. However, the very outter layer of the tongue needs to be removed before eating, so you root around a bit in that milky white part with a knife, but once it gets loose, it sloughs off pretty easily. Most of the bumps on the tongue go with it, but there's still plenty there to remind you of what you're working with:
May not look like a tongue, but again, it most definitely feels like one
After removing the funky white covering (which probably has a name, but you have the same access to google that I do if you're so damn interested), you chop the tongue up into roughly half inch or so slices. Here's where you relearn a lesson about how heat dissipates, as the outside of the tongue will quickly feel cool enough to work with, but as you start to slice into it and burn your fingers, you remember that heat doesn't move evenly through objects like that. So after swearing a bunch and occasionally running your fingers through cold water, you end up with tongue slices:

Don't let the remarkable resemblance to dog food throw you.
 Then it's time to cook again! I'm beginning to realize the one through-line of working with offal (other than the fact it will take you all day) is that it will need to be cooked in a minimum of two different ways. Starting to understand why people do not gravitate toward these parts of the cow. Anyway, you take those slices and pan fry for awhile, till they're nice and browned:

This is what something looks like in a frying pan.
This picture was probably unnecessary.
 So now we've got some nicely fried cow tongue slices, but since we're going for tacos, they need another rough chop to make them tiny little taco-ready cubes. Once again, you think you've waited plenty of time, but you most definitely burn your fingers again chopping until you have this:

Hi! I'm a pile of tongue!
Then you're pretty much ready to go. Every recipe I read indicated the salsa verde was the go-to condiment for tacos de lengua, so I went with a healthy pile of that. I also saved some of the raw onion, most of which ended up in the simmering pot, to put on them. And then cheese, of course (more on that below). Throw that all in a fresh tortilla, and you get something that's not nearly as photogenic as the stew:

Yup, those are tacos alright.

But was it any good?

Well…kinda. I mean, they definitely weren't bad, but they weren't spectacular. However, I think I made a few key mistakes that could easily be avoided in future tongue cooking. Specifically to the tacos, the grocery store was out of queso fresco when I was there, and I'll be good God damned if I'm going to go to two grocery stores, so I just went with some generic "mexican blend" packaged cheese. This was a big mistake, as the queso fresco would not only have tasted better, but the salty fattiness of it would have really complemented the tacos in a way they could have used. Similarly, I didn't have any limes, and these things were just screaming for some acidity.

In more general tongue preparation, there seemed to be a split opinion on the google machine as to whether tongue needs to be brined before cooking. I skipped it mainly for time concerns (and I'm honestly getting sick of washing dishes -- this shit makes you use a lot of dishes), but I imagine it would have gone quite a way toward solving the acidity problem as well as softening the tongue up more to get rid of the rubberiness. You can't ever completely make tongue loose that rubbery texture, but I think I could have done more. Mine was still fairly rubbery and at the very least probably could have used another hour or so of simmering (but it was getting late, and I was hungry). I'm going to try making the leftovers into a quesadilla incorporating a few more ingredients, though, which I think will make it significantly more palatable. One other problem was that even though I chopped up the tongue as soon as I possibly could (probably sooner than I should have, given how I repeatedly burnt my fingers), by the time the tacos were all assembled, the tongue had cooled quite a bit. Like to basically room temp. While I still could have done more to make the tongue less rubbery, I'm guessing consuming it at room temp probably doesn't help.

Finally, as alluded to above, there is no mistaking you're working with a tongue here. If you had just given me these tacos and not explained what the meat was I might have thought they were a tad rubbery, but not really cared or noticed. But after you've had to handle the tongue for quite sometime, it's simply impossible to push that…feeling out of your head. I think when I have the leftovers and haven't just recently been handling a bloody tongue it might go better.

Have we learned anything from this process?

Yes. Cooking is fun! This is something I already knew, but it's been a long while since I've tried to push myself into really different foods/recipes than I normally cook with. It's a fun hobby, and typically leaves you with something delicious at the end, so it's nice to occasionally just do it for fun rather than for utilitarian purposes.

Also, I don't do much day-long simmering like this very often and I've forgotten how awesome it makes the house smell. I've always been too young and/or single to own a crockpot, but this is making me rethink that. My house has smelled pretty awesome all week. Drives Dog nuts, though.

Coming soon:

A friend passed along a tasty-looking recipe for beef heart, so that's going to happen in the near future. But the true golden grail is brain, which is probably my favorite of all the organs. I'm going to try making it two ways, so that should be a fun entry. I'll either end up with the most delicious thing I've ever made or a really fun blog post about how I wasted a day ruining food. Or I'll get mad cow and post nothing but insane gibberish. In any event, that oughtta be a fun one.

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